During our Insight Event last week, Mark Gould of Addleshaw Goddard discussed the changing role of knowledge management in law firms: where it’s gone (and in some cases where it’s gone a bit astray) and how social computing can rescue it. These are my notes from Mark’s talk
Primary strands of KM
Setting the context of his talk, Mark described the two primary strands of knowledge management which surrounds:
- Document and information management; and
- People and relationship management.
Document and information management
Historical a lot of what lawyers do has been written, and their natural inclination has been to capture some of that work, reference it in guidance notes and precedent documents, and store it away
These traditional ‘capture and consumption’ processes have become considerably easier with technology advances. Easier for everyone including external publishers, professional service organisations like PLC and other (competitor) firms, all of whom are collating and exchanging a range of information for online distribution and consumption
As a result, the competitive advantage that has been gained from good precedents and other documents does not necessarily apply today since the recognised and quality elements therein are cherry picked by others and integrated into their precedent base. Whilst firms will always need good documentation – and a repository of this knowledge – to enable fee earners to prepare better documents more quickly, that documentation is merely entry-level criteria that puts firms at the start line, but no longer gives them the edge that helps them win business.
This first strand of KM, which has been the focus of so much effort over the last 10-15 years, should continue but its significance needs to be reduced to reflect changes in market conditions.
People and relationships
The legal industry is built on relationships: client relationships, partnerships, mentoring/apprenticeship, and so on. Much of what juniors learn in firms is based on watching and observing the work of more senior colleagues and taking part in matters. This personal strand of knowledge transfer is an area where social software can generate better relationships that underpin the business – not just within the firm but also between firms and their clients
To support and improve these relationships, firms initially implemented document management systems, but realising their inadequacies moved to ‘expertise’ databases. The intention was to make available or direct people to the right precedent, guidance notes or partner/colleague with the right expertise to advise on the the situation at hand.
But, these expertise databases have relied on people filling in and updating their profiles – a time-consuming manual processes that leads people to ask ‘Why should I do this and what do I get in return?’
This question arises because people are already storing their own know-how, despite the vast databases that are maintained by firms. The natural tendency for everybody (and particularly for lawyers whose work depends on their ability to augment their individual expertise) is to develop their own personal knowledge and expertise, and to do so by gathering together those things together in which she or he specialises
However, the up-shot of these personal knowledge management routines means that it is very hard for people in different locations to get a view of the information/expertise their colleagues have in their cupboards. People can’t simply wander down the corridor and open up the cupboard if it is physically remote, which is increasingly the case as law firms expand on a regional and global basis, and people become more mobile working from numerous locations.
Role of social software in knowledge management
Social software provides an answer to the ‘why’ question. It is a means of giving people what they want in terms of their traditional knowledge management activities, in a way that also benefits the firm.
- Consuming: Reading articles, gathering items from news clips, placing them in folders and writing notes can all be done online. For instance, through Delicious or internal systems items can be bookmarked and stored for later reference. Effectively this puts your know how folder on the network giving you access to it where ever you are. That gives you more value along with those others who can also access to your knowledge store
- Contributing: Inside a firm, lawyers develop their knowledge and skills by talking about their work during in-house training sessions, writing articles and opinions to clients, discussing matters with colleagues, etc. ‘Contribution’ steps then move outside the firms boundaries to work with peers and external groups, e.g. talking to industry, writing for journals, and so on
Both internal and external activities can be created in a social software context. Using a blog (for instance) returns extra value because the tool allows for far greater interaction: people can ask questions and comment on ideas, and engage will a much wider group that is interested in what is being discussed. Thais can happen equally within the firewall, as well as in the public domain.
- Connecting: Having collected some items and contributed others, next comes connections and the development of reputation in an area. Use of social tools draws out your network, in ways that can be entirely unexpected. This can generate potential leads for lawyers but it can also develop a support network of people with similar interests. These tools allow you to get in touch with people that you would otherwise have no contact, enable you to develop more robust ideas, and can lead to new activity inside the firm and across the network in general. They enable you to step outside of your immediate environment and connect with people and information in a way that actually creates opportunities. Just by asking a question, making a comment and creating a post about your work or what areas you are researching might put someone in touch with you or assist a colleague in another department or city.
These individual benefits have direct knock-on effects for the firm as a whole
Mark used this Godin and Peters clip to vivid illustrate the way in which blogging can help careers and business
People – the ultimate differentiator
As firms have very similar access to documents and to the law, marginal benefits accrue from the creation of systems that commoditise these element. Instead, it is people and their relationships that are the differentiator and which fuel the competitive edge
Whilst online interactions are not new, previous forms of online information exchange and communications were siloed and didn’t create a sense of community. Today, the ability to greatly expand one’s connections and engage in whole range of activities online provides an entirely different experience. Conversing with people on Twitter, seeing people on Flickr and sharing resources on Delicious all provide a more faceted picture of people around you.
The sequence of consuming -> contributing -> connecting is not necessarily linear. To capitalise on consumption and contribution behaviours the better place to begin is with and through the expansion of the connections in the firm. That then places ‘communities’ and ‘networks’ high on the list of priorities in the knowledge management arena.